David Nelson doesn’t remember the exact moment a knife pierced his heart. Nor does he remember intense pain or even shock. But he does remember the distinct feeling of life slipping away.
The 22-year-old college football player had just left the nightlife of downtown Boston happy-go-lucky, a tad hungry, and with close friends. When a fight unexpectedly broke out, he tried to calm the scene, but instead was stabbed in the heart.
“It was a pretty wild feeling, and something I will never forget,” remarks Nelson, “The whole time, I didn’t know what just happened, and then I look down and I’m bleeding – my arm, my chest – but I didn’t feel anything.”
When he left his apartment at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, he expected to return in just a few days. After all, he was only going to his brother’s wedding over Memorial Day weekend. It was the summer before his senior year of college, and Nelson had a lot to do upon his return - train for a position as football captain and interview for an internship. So he laid out his interview clothes and packed a bag for Boston.
Little did he know that it would be two months before he returned.
When the knife pierced his heart, the pericardial sac filled up, saturated with blood. As a cab rushed him to Massachusetts General Hospital, Nelson went in and out of consciousness.
“At that time, I felt my life slipping away,” explains Nelson. “I started thinking about everyone I loved in my life, and I asked myself is this really happening?”
Nelson describes it as a very surreal, but calm feeling – one that he will never forget. Then the lights went out.
As doctors at Mass General Hospital tried to revive him, they found his heart suffocated and unable to beat. He had no vitals. One nurse pushed her fingers into the puncture and gently massaged his heart back to beating.
“This nurse probably just looks at this as just her job, but to me, it takes a special person to do that,” says Nelson.
Once the heart started beating, Tom MacGillivray, MD, cardiac surgeon, joined the clinical team to surgically repair a 1 cm puncture in the heart. Then the miracle happened. Upon completion of the surgical repair, Nelson awoke, scared and confused, but without long-term brain damage.
Within four days, Nelson walked out of the hospital, but he spent the next month battling a number of setbacks – short-term memory loss, an inability to drive, and severe pain in his ribs.
“I was scared, anxious and wanted life to get back to normal,” says Nelson. “Playing football marked getting back to the usual.”
A fullback for the Lafayette College Leopards, Nelson had been designated captain for the upcoming season. “I was determined to get back to football and loved it. I wanted to get back to being captain, and there was this possibility that I wouldn’t be able to play football again.”
In early July, Tom MacGillivray, MD, gave Nelson the green light to get back to his normal exercise routine and get in shape for football.
“I started swimming like crazy, and it was tough at first,” admits Nelson. He vigorously exercised four hours a day, determined to get back to where he left off before Memorial Day. Two months after the stabbing, he returned to Pennsylvania to train with the team.
“My room was the same way I had left it the day I left for Boston,” says Nelson.
He went from last in every sprint on day one of camp, fighting his way to eventually be first by the end. With this determination and the support of the team at Mass General Hospital, family and friends, Nelson went on to play football, remain captain, and help take the team all the way to win the Patriot League championship. It wasn’t just a miracle. It was extraordinary.